What you need to know
Ultimately we have to learn to get used to a world that humans are no longer the protagonist but playing a supporting role.
With its ever-expanding space program and efforts to pave the way in artificial intelligence and virtual reality (VR) technology, China’s futuristic ambitions can also be felt on a literary level. Some say the nation is even entering a “golden age” of science-fiction.
Stanley Chan (陳楸帆), a 35-year-old Beijing-based science-fiction writer, is a leading light in China’s new generation of science fiction writers. His works have been translated into several languages. He’s also heavily involved in China’s start-up sector, having worked for Baidu, and now Noitom, a firm focusing on VR technologies.
The News Lens (TNL) caught up with Chan to talk science fiction influences, new projects that bridge storytelling with the latest tech, and what he thinks China’s future might look like.
TNL: When did you get into science-fiction and what were your biggest influences growing up?
Chan: My first encounter with sci-fi was in kindergarten. My dad brought me some popular science magazines such as Science Illustrated and Knowledge is Power. Some very classic SF short stories in them as "The Lost World" by Arthur Conan Doyle. That was how I began to read SF.
My favorite writers back then were Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and A.C. Clarke, and my favorite franchise was Star Trek (Spock rocks!), even though I love the original Star Wars trilogy. I started to write stories when I was in primary school, like grade one. I wrote some space opera stuff and childish imitations of Star Wars.
I was encouraged by my family. The best thing I got from my family is they never restricted me from trying anything. I went to the city library at age six and read anything I could find. I don’t have a real mentor and am mostly self-taught on writing. It seems that my parents had no expectation on what kind of person I would become, which is not like most of the other Chinese parents.
TNL: Where do you get your ideas from? Do you have a science background alongside the literary? Are you self-taught? Where did you develop the skills required for Google or Baidu?
I did well in physics back in high school though I chose literature and arts during university as my majors. I have read a lot of popular science books and magazines since I was a kid. I like to use popular science sites, such as Wikipedia, and other popular sites. I have a lot of friends who have backgrounds in science or are doing research as scientists, and I ask their opinions from time to time.
TNL: Science-fiction in China is apparently having a “golden age.” Do you agree and if so, why do you think this is?
Chan: Yes and no.
On the one hand, we have Hugo Awards winners and huge capital seeking good sci-fi for film adaptations. Apparently, we can reach a broader market and be more influential not only in China but internationally. The government also considers science fiction to be a valuable cultural export.
On the other hand, we don’t have as solid a writer base compared to America. Our readers have narrow tastes and mindsets in science-fiction. Our film industry is not ready for science-fiction movie production. The money might boost the industry, but that might eventually damage the passion.
TNL: Please describe your upcoming projects and how you manage to balance the roles of sci-fi writer and tech innovator.
I am writing some short stories or novellas across the genres of sci-fi, thriller, war and psychology. I’m also preparing to make a virtual reality short film based on my novel “The Waste Tide.” And some other adaptation projects are on-going. The best way to balance both sides is to combine them into one.
I bet there are more people like me playing the same game for both sides in the industry. There are famous ones such as Neal Stephenson (author of “Snowcrash”) in Magicleap and Ernest Cline (author of “Ready Player One”) in Oculus Rift. The rest might just enjoy being amateur sci-fi writers or fans.
TNL: You told me you were starting a “sci-fi studio” where you will adapt sci-fi stories to new technologies in the world of film, television and games. Can you talk more about this?
Chan: The truth is, just like teenage sex, everyone’s talking about it (Chinese sci-fi adaptation), but only a few people did try to do it and didn’t get much experience or pleasure out of it. It’s still in very early stages. A lot of deals were made. A lot of projects were announced. But still, not one single successful (box office or critic) case has come out yet. Sci-fi movies require the highest level of film industrial production value through the whole pipeline, including world setting, script writing, concept art, science consultant, pre-visualization, visual effects, sound design and mixing, etcetera. It’s a super complicated, systematic process. Now we lacking all these talents but luckily things are changing rapidly.
TNL: Science-fiction writers of the past have played an important role in both suggesting novel inventions as in foreshadowing dystopian worlds. How do you feel about the pace of change and industrialization in China? How do you feel about your role as a sci-fi writer and innovator? If you could summarize it: what is your vision of China’s future?
Chan: The pace of the Chinese society accelerated in the past few decades, it seems to have slowed down a little bit, but still the momentum is incredibly huge. We will see a lot of changes during our lifetime: technology, economic, culture, social structure and ethics. People feel anxious about these changes, which are hard to keep up with. As a sci-fi writer and innovator, we are good at simulating different scenarios under certain “what if” scenarios and speculate accordingly. We might feel numb or normal when facing the changes since we have already experienced them in fictional worlds many times.
It’s so difficult to summarize future China with one simple assumption. China is too huge and imbalanced in all areas. From the most developed mega-cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai or Shenzhen, to the more rural North-West provinces, it just feels like different planets. One thing we can be sure is, the Chinese are very adaptive to the new emerging technologies, no matter if it is the internet, smartphone or VR, AR, AI, they can seamlessly use all these to run businesses or improve life quality. But there will be conflicts between the totalitarian state and the self-fulfillment of individuals, and the tension will be built up and annihilated in the form of technology application.
TNL: Are there any new written works on the horizon, or sci-fi themes, concepts or innovations you’re particularly excited about at the moment?
Chan: The most recent book I have read is Yuval Noah Harari ’s “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.” From a sci-fi writer’s perspective, nothing incredibly new, but all the material was very well-organized to support his standing point, which is, our future is de-anthropocentrism. No matter if it is Cyborg or AI, ultimately we have to learn to get used to a world where humans are no longer the protagonist but playing a supporting role. That’s what I am thinking about a lot currently.
Editor: Edward White